Crafting a film as a first-time director is a challenge in itself. Creating one that’s compelling, profound and awards-worthy is even harder. Doing all of the above, while also tackling the essence of life itself in your directorial debut may seem like madness, yet writer-director Edson Oda has done so expertly in “Nine Days.”
After earning rave reviews at Sundance Film Festival all the way back in January 2020, the supernatural drama is finally set to release across the country, and it is certainly worth the wait. With a star-studded cast bringing the film to life – err, well, pre-life – “Nine Days” is fueled by moving performances across the board and a stirring message of what it means to live.
Set in an ethereal purgatory that’s neither alive nor dead, Will (Winston Duke) spends his days taking countless notes, observing lives on Earth through old, boxy television sets. As the ultimate authority tasked with deciding the souls who make the cut and move on to experience the land of the living, Will continues to shadow those he selects throughout their lives, from childhood until the end. He’s not quite a guardian angel – he’s unable to intervene in their lives once the souls descend to Earth – yet he still feels a responsibility to follow them through like to ensure he made the right decision. When one of his living subjects passes on, a new batch of candidates arrive at his desert abode to go through the nine-day evaluation process, but only one will earn the right to live.
After the startling death of one of Will’s favorite subjects, the new recruits begin their testing. All eager to experience everything life has to offer, Kane (Bill Skarsgard), Alexander (Tony Hale), Mike (David Rysdahl), Maria (Arianna Ortiz) and Anne (Perry Smith) are subjected to hours of observation, interviews and countless ethical quandaries. When a candidate proves they do not have what it takes to make it in the real world, they are gently let go. But one soul stands out from the group – a bright, inquisitive woman named Emma (Zazie Beetz). Rather than simply answering every question thrown her way, Emma questions back, wanting to know the why behind life on Earth, and pushing Will to confront his own past existence on the planet.
Duke, an actor known for his turns in blockbusters like “Black Panther” and “Us,” proves himself to be a dramatic force, capable of conveying just as much with his expressive silence as he can with his dialogue. Beetz is every bit his foil, constantly pushing Duke’s character to be more expressive, emotional and vulnerable, which allows for a truly incredible relationship to grow between their characters. While Duke and Beetz may be the film’s “main characters,” there is plenty of well-deserved praise due for the entire ensemble. Benedict Wong’s Kyo falls somewhere in between Will and Emma when it comes to an enthusiasm for life, while Tony Hale sheds his usual lightheartedness for a darker character in Alexander.
What’s just as impressive as any performance in “Nine Days” is its ability to fully encapsulate a feeling. The stunning visuals of the Utah-based production, the beautiful use of lighting throughout the film, the delicate score from Antonio Pinto, and, of course, the celestial nature of it all come together to create a feeling that is just so… “Nine Days.” Not since 2013’s “Her” has a film felt so strongly that it has forced me to label it as its very own feeling. The connection makes sense, though, considering “Her” director Spike Jonze served as an executive producer on “Nine Days.”
It may feel lazy to compare “Nine Days” to Pixar’s “Soul”, but considering the two are both concerned with a soul’s fitness for Earth and released within the same year, it’s hard for one not to evoke thoughts of the other. Praise for “Soul” was high, myself included, but what it lacked was a true depth to the questions it asked viewers to ponder, and “Nine Days” delivers on that front. In a way, Beetz’s Emma acts as a voice for Oda himself, presenting the hard-hitting questions to Will and the audience. Not everything receives an answer on screen, and it shouldn’t – that’s for you to decide.
The biggest question it leaves, though, is this: What does Edson Oda have planned next?
“Nine Days” releases exclusively in theaters on August 6, 2021.
Zach Goins is a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association based in Raleigh, N.C. Zach co-founded Inside The Film Room in 2018 and serves as Editor-in-Chief of the website and co-host of the podcast. Zach also serves as a film critic for CLTure.org.